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Wildcats fall to Michigan in NIT finale, 71-57

By Joel Jellison

In its biggest test of the season, the Kansas State men’s basketball team fell flat on Friday.

Playing No. 4-ranked Michigan in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, the Wildcats trailed the whole game in a 71-57 loss.

The Wildcats (5-1) struggled to score in the early minutes of the game, trailing 6-0 before Will Spradling got a 3-pointer to fall with less than 15 minutes to play in the first half. During the first five minutes of the game, K-State was 0-for-6 from the field.

Michigan’s Trey Burke hit a layup at the 11:14 mark to push the Wolverines lead to 15-5, putting the Wildcats in a battle just to stay in the game.

Down 21-11, the Wildcats made their biggest push of the game. Nino Williams and Jordan Henriquez made putback shots to cut it to 21-15, and Angel Rodriguez made a 3-pointer to trim the lead to 22-18. Henriquez hit a jumpshot to make it 22-20, and the Wildcats looked to be back in business.

But the Wolverines got their offense back together in the final five minutes, outscoring K-State 7-4 to lead 29-24 at the break.

K-State opened the second half missing its first five shots, while the Wolverines went on an 8-0 run to go ahead 37-24.

Wildcats’ coach Bruce Weber said moments like that were key in the game.

“It was just bad shots,” he said. “We took four rushed shots and they got transition, and they went right away, an 8-0 run, I think. You spot them six to start the game, you spot them eight in the second half, and I think then we doubted a little bit.

“I still like our group. I think we’ve got a chance to be good, we’re just going to have to figure it out.”

By the 10:44 mark of the second half, Michigan had outscored the Wildcats 22-6. Rodriguez said the Wolverines were doing virtually the same things it did in the first half. The deficit was the fault of the Wildcats.

“They ran their plays the whole game, nothing changed,” he said. “We took bad shots at the beginning of the second half, and that’s when they made the run. They got almost like a 20-point lead, and then it was hard to catch up being down 20 to the number four team in the nation.”

The Wildcats got no closer than 12 points in the final minute of the game, as the Wolverines handed them their first loss of the season in their biggest opportunity to boost the postseason resume in non-conference play, at least thus far.

The Wolverines beat K-State at its own game, winning the rebounding battle 42-30. While the Wildcats have dominated the offensive boards, they outrebounded Michigan just 12-10.

Weber said rebounding was an area he thought his team would be better at.

“Rebounding has been our strength, and they end up punking us on the boards 42-30,” he said. “That’s supposed to be our strength, and they made it their strength this game. They can come at you a lot of ways. Obviously, two great players, transition, all three freshmen played pretty good for them. They were solid.”

Michigan coach John Beilein also expected it to come down to a battle of the boards, and especially on putback shots, where the Wildcats have scored chunks of points this season.

But the Wolverines managed to keep K-State from doing much damage in the paint.

“If we win this game, it’s probably very close because they probably got putbacks, more putbacks than they had tonight,” he said. “They still got 12, but they’re averaging 20. That’s important that we can limit their opportunities, especially teams like this and other Big Ten teams that really rely on offensive rebounding. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. They rely on that, and that’s a great strategy to have.”

Rodney McGruder led the Wildcats with 16 points. Tim Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 23 points and was named Most Outstandin Player of the Tournament.

Weber said the game had the tale of two halves feeling about it, as the Wildcats struggled in the first half, but did manage to pick it up late. In the second half, they played from far behind nearly the whole way.

“Just a great opportunity for us, a great learning experience,” he said. “Obviously they’re a very good team, have two of the best players in the country, but we felt we had to defend it and rebound, which we did in the first half. Sometimes you’ve got to grind games out.”

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